Oliver Cromwell – ‘God’s Englishman’
Few men have the honour of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Even fewer have the distinction of being dug up three years later and their body hung up for public derision. Such was Oliver Cromwell who died 350 years ago this year.
In life as in death, he aroused hatred and controversy. Even today, historians are divided over his character and worth. But for the Christian there is an extra dimension to the man – Cromwell was, without any doubt, a true child of God.
Born on 25 April 1599, Cromwell grew up under the influence of godly parents. He was educated at grammar school by a Puritan teacher and later at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His father’s death in 1617 brought Cromwell home as the eldest son to care for the family.
Cromwell entered enthusiastically into local politics, which eventually lead him onto the wider political stage. The conflict between King and Parliament was already escalating when Cromwell entered the fray.
As King Charles continued to act above the law, the war clouds gathered. Finally the attack on Scotland’s religious liberty (an attempt to make them conform to English Anglicanism) was the last straw for Parliamentarians. English Puritans, who were the major voice in Parliament, had a natural religious affinity with their Covenanting brothers north of the border.
Cromwell entered military service and proved to be a dedicated soldier. He rose to become Parliament’s greatest general, showing his supreme military genius at the battle of Naseby. Charles had been defeated, and peace negotiations were in progress, when the king made a second attempt to regain power using foreign forces.
After being finally defeated in the ‘second civil war’, Charles was charged with high treason and other crimes against the realm, and finally executed. Cromwell now emerged not only as leader of the army but also of Parliament. On 16 December 1653 he became Lord Protector of England.
Cromwell found himself in a dangerous position. He had many enemies, not only among Royalists but also within his own ranks. Many of his soldiers wanted to push for further reforms and extend the voting franchise. Cromwell had to maintain a difficult balancing act.
Even in religion there was a division between Presbyterians and Independents. Yet his role as Protector was a remarkable one. Cromwell was able to strengthen the country and give it a greater standing among other nations.
He introduced new laws and set the economy on a more secure footing. Although the picture is often given of an angry tyrant, Cromwell opposed severe punishments for minor crimes, created higher standards among teachers, clergy and lawyers, and above all showed a remarkable tolerance for those with differing religious views.
Many of Cromwell’s detractors have pointed particularly to his Irish campaign and the action he took against his enemies. Even today Cromwell’s name for many is synonymous with evil. The charge is made that he was responsible for the massacre of innocents in the towns of Drogheda and Wexford in 1649.
Put simply, it is said that Cromwell besieged and then massacred the inhabitants of these towns, showing mercy to none. But there is less evidence for this charge than is often claimed and several highly respected historians dispute the facts.
Cromwell scholar Maurice Ashley exonerates Cromwell of the massacre at Drogheda. Antonia Fraser, herself a Roman Catholic, has questioned the authenticity of some of Cromwell’s letters purporting to acknowledge that many inhabitants died.
But by far the most effective defence of Cromwell has been written by Tom Reilly1. The astonishing thing about Reilly is that he is an Irishman who was born in Drogheda. As a local historian he claims to have evidence that absolves Cromwell, accepting only that the ‘massacres’ were entirely military and in keeping with the warfare conventions of the day.
Cromwell followed the rules of law laid down by international lawyers such as Hugo Grotius in his De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625) – written for the Thirty Years War and which effectively became a pattern for the Geneva Convention.
Much has been said about what drove the man to such fame and prominence but, while the role of his religion has been recognised, few secular historians have fully grasped the significance of his inner spiritual drive.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact time of his conversion, but it must have been sometime during his thirties. His friends often spoke of his ‘dark periods’ which were undoubtedly times when he was struggling with his own sin. He writes of his conversion experience later in 1638 in a letter:
‘Blessed be his Name for shining upon so dark a heart as mine! You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh, I have lived in and loved darkness and hated the light. I was a chief, the chief of sinners. This is true; I hated godliness, yet God had mercy on me. Oh the riches of his mercy! Praise him for me, that he who hath begun a good work should perfect it in the day of Christ’.2
Whatever faults may be laid at Cromwell’s door, and there were many, he was driven by the single conviction that he was doing God’s work. He saw all his earthly battles as a microcosm of a much greater cosmic struggle between God and evil. He played the part of a latter day Joshua in the campaign to bring righteousness and justice to the land.
Cromwell would lead his men into battle with psalms and prayers. Yet he was also an intensely pragmatic tactician, who not only reshaped the army that fought under him but planned his campaigns with precision.
Although a disciplinarian, Cromwell cared deeply for his men. He could relate to them at all levels and concerned himself with the infantryman as well as the officer. His choice of John Owen as chaplain is indicative of his spiritual consciousness.
Owen was one of the most outstanding men of God in an age rich with spiritual giants. He was not only the greatest theologian but also a faithful pastor. If Cromwell was the religious hypocrite that some of his detractors claim, how could this have escaped the shrewdness and spiritual discernment of a man like Owen?
Cromwell was a passionate family man, spending as much time with his family as his public duties would allow, and his letters to his wife show deep tenderness.
His great peace-time achievement was the granting of religious liberty. The unjust persecution of Quakers had greatly disturbed him and almost single-handedly he turned the tide of opinion concerning the Jews – giving them protection and even providing funds to build synagogues. He used his influence to support the Waldensians, a persecuted European Protestant minority, offering financial aid and, if necessary, military support.
During his Protectorate, Cromwell promoted godliness. He set an example in piety and attendance at public worship, and promoted two of the greatest declarations of faith – the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration.
It is never easy to sum up Cromwell’s achievements. His biographies are legion and assessing his true worth and place in history is difficult. Even for Christians it is hard to disentangle politics from religion and see the man as an Evangelical.
Christians often look back in history for heroes – they are usually great preachers, missionaries or evangelists. Cromwell was none of these, yet he was a remarkable man in a time of turbulent change.
Even Christopher Hill, never a friend of Evangelicals, called him ‘God’s Englishman’ and writes warmly of him.3 Men of letters, such as his contemporaries Milton and Marvell, paid glowing tributes to him.
For Evangelicals, perhaps his greatest contribution was to be God’s willing instrument in developing the democratic process – which in turn promoted the religious toleration and freedom we have long enjoyed and, until recent days, have taken for granted.
Like Esther, he was surely called for such a time.4 The work begun in the mid 17th century was to give Britain relative peace and prosperity in the 18th century – a period of greatness for Britain as an economic and political power but also the time of her greatest evangelical triumphs.
I believe that Cromwell, with all his ‘warts’, was a man God used. If we are to understand our national evangelical heritage then we must give him his rightful place and thank God for raising Christian politicians as well as preachers.
1. Clive Gillis, English Churchman (June 2000), p.10.
2. Antonia Frazer, Cromwell, our chief of men (Phoenix, reprint 2002), p.46.
3. Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman (Penguin, 1973).
4. Esther 4:14.
Maurice Ashley, The greatness of Oliver Cromwell (Macmillan, 1958); Andrew Thompson, John Owen, prince of Puritans (Christian Focus, 2004).